In the month of December, New York City might as well be called the North Pole—partly because of the frigid temperatures, but mostly because you can’t turn a corner without seeing pictures of Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, or a Christmas tree. You can’t walk by a store without hearing songs of chestnuts and jingle bells, nor open a magazine without spotting a holiday guilt guide—and don’t even try to ride the subway without seeing at least three or four holiday cups from Starbucks. I love the holidays, and I’d be lying if I said that I don’t walk down Fifth Avenue every year to take pictures of the decorated windows (because I do… every year). But even if your holiday cheer rivals that of Clark Griswald's, you still might find yourself wondering:
Isn’t this all a little bit over the top
Not only are we striving to bake cookies, buy presents, host holiday parties, attend holiday parties, decorate our homes, watch holiday movies, listen to holiday music, attend holiday performances and book travel out of town, but we are also still required to finish our exams, get work shifts covered, cover the shifts of others, pay our rent, pay our bills, find a cat sitter, etc. While I find all of these holiday activities very appealing, I’m always disappointed to find that cramming “holiday to-dos” into my everyday to-do list is not only rather impossible, but also rather stressful.
The holidays are, theoretically, a time to relax—but it isn't revolutionary to suggest that they’re actually not that relaxing. To me, there are few things more anxiety-inducing than spending a Saturday afternoon in a packed Union Square, avoiding pointy elbows as I attempt to squeeze into a booth at the holiday market. There are also few things more difficult than trying to write a literary theory paper while listening to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, as these problems are about as traumatizing as spilling water down your jeans. But this holiday season I’ve come to realize that some of our—or at least my—holiday practices are actually quite silly. Maybe instead of running around like a snowman with its head cut off, determined to cross off every “holiday cheer to-do” I possibly can, I should take a moment to sit down, take a breath, and simplify.
New York is always overstimulating, but around the holidays it becomes even more so. It’s important, then, to find moments throughout the day to reground, recharge, and breathe. Meditation is a great place to start. It feels especially challenging to sit down and meditate when our minds are jingle bell-rocking in all sorts of directions (note: a key symptom of holiday-overstimulation is the inclusion of corny holiday references in written work), but taking ten minutes a day to focus on your breath can be incredibly effective in counteracting sensory-overload. Another activity that I’ve been working into my daily routine this holiday season came to me from Twyla Tharp’s book,
The Creative Habit.
“When I listen to music, I don’t multitask; I simply listen. Part of it is my job: I listen to music to see if I can dance to it. But another part is simple courtesy to the composer. I listen with the same intensity the composer exerted to string the notes together. I’d expect the same from anyone watching my work. I certainly wouldn’t approve if someone read a book while my dancers were performing."
When I first read this three years ago, I was struck by it—I couldn’t remember the last time that I had
listened to music, without also trying to read, cook, clean, ride the subway, etc. It seems like there is always music going on in the background of our lives, whether we’re shopping, eating out, riding an elevator, grabbing a drink, riding in a taxi, watching a movie, or whatever else. This is true during this time of year as well, only the kinds of music we hear seem to be universally limited to the “holiday” genre. It’s been three years since I first read Tharp’s words, and I still find music humming in the background in moments when it should be the focus of my undivided attention. For someone whose career—dancer—relies on the ability to listen to and communicate with music, this is shameful. So this holiday season, I’m taking Tharp’s advice, and I’m setting aside at least one song a day to listen to without any distractions. No cruising Facebook, no reorganizing my bookshelves, and no online shopping for my parents’ Christmas gifts: just listening. Not only am I hearing new things in pieces of music with which I swore I was familiar, but I’m also counteracting some of that multi-tasking holiday mania.
This practice of listening to music may not appeal to you, but perhaps you can start to discover which things you’ve been cooking on the back burner that should not only be on the front burner, but should also be on the only burner turned on. Last year, in a workshop with Rebecca Dietzel at the Perri Institute, Rebecca told us that our brains can only truly focus on two things at once—I believe it. As soon as we start adding task number three and task number four into the mix, our ability to complete all of our tasks starts to suffer. Writing a paper while blasting holiday tunes and checking the clock every two minutes to make sure the cookies in the oven don’t burn is perhaps not the most productive way to get these tasks accomplished. Neither is writing this blog post while your two-year-old neighbor bangs on the wall but hey, some things are out of our control.
So take some time this season, both on and off your mat, to pick one task, one point of focus, and stick to it. I’m convinced it won’t intrude upon the holiday cheer; in fact, I’m convinced it will enhance it.